Board tunes in to WPVM controversy, signals changes

The board that oversees WPVM, Asheville’s low-power community radio station, accepted responsibility for the removal of a station volunteer, issued an apology and adopted a direct role in overseeing the station’s management during a meeting last week.

But while the board’s action defused the recent controversy, it’s apparent that those involved believe there’s more work ahead to get the station back on track.

It all started after Mountain Area Information Network’s executive director, Wally Bowen, dismissed long-time station volunteer Gillian Coats following the Aug. 22 broadcast of her WPVM show, 7 Layer Dip. Bowen, who also cancelled the show, said the broadcast was the most recent example of Coats’ record of thumbing her nose at MAIN’s control of WPVM. MAIN, a nonprofit Internet-service provider, holds the broadcast license for the station, which is licensed to broadcast at 100 watts.

Bowen’s move triggered protests on the part of other volunteers, some of whom temporarily refused to speak on the air during their programs or stopped volunteering all together. The station’s one paid employee, Operations Manager Jason Holland, also resigned in the wake of the show’s cancellation.

In a statement issued by MAIN’s board chairman, George Peery, after the board’s Sept. 8 meeting, the board thanked Coats for her work and apologized to both Coats and Bowen, saying that board members held themselves responsible for the situation, “since we failed to take action to resolve a longstanding disagreement over station policy between Ms. Coats, MAIN” and Bowen.

The board also announced that it planned to adopt a new governance structure that would require WPVM to report directly to a subcommittee of the board, effectively removing Bowen from station oversight. And MAIN board members rejected Holland’s resignation.

It’s too early to tell just what impact the board’s actions will have on the station, but Peery’s optimistic. “I have been encouraged by the new channels of communication that seem to have opened and the mutual sense of responsibility that has been affirmed all around,” he said in an e-mail to Xpress. “There are, of course, lots of details to work out.”

Holland, who has served out his two-week resignation notice and no longer works at the station, told Xpress that he would have to talk to the board before deciding whether to return to his job. “I still plan on being involved at WPVM and had planned to be involved in a volunteer capacity,” Holland said. “But I can’t say at what capacity I’ll be involved.”

Coats said she’s thankful for the apology, but wants to see the board “take action and take responsibility for what did happen—that would be my show getting cancelled without any review,” she said. “My show wasn’t reinstated. I wasn’t asked to come back, and my co-host wasn’t offered the show back.”

Recent developments have had a positive impact, though, Coats said. “It’s motivated the board. I think it’s inspired the volunteers to come together. I think it remains to be seen in terms of what everybody does with what I think of as the first steps toward resolution.”

For his part, Bowen said he’s relieved that his board has urged him to focus on MAIN’s broad mission, which includes citizen access to media. The controversy and accusations have “done serious harm to our organization,” Bowen said, “but at least it’s out in the open now.” He said the station had “become an insider’s game, a place of privilege,” but now he believes “the board is committed to making WPVM more open to local producers.”


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5 thoughts on “Board tunes in to WPVM controversy, signals changes

  1. Jonathan Burnham

    Poor Wally. Good to see the board has apologized to him, but they really should be ashamed for facilitating such a conflict. I think taking Wally out of the line of fire is a good first move towards restoring the confidence of all parties in the board – who was caught with their pants down on this one.

  2. Cecil Bothwell

    When a friend forwarded this to me I thought it was from the Disclaimer. “Bowen said the station had “become an insider’s game, a place of privilege,” but now he believes ‘the board is committed to making WPVM more open to local producers.'”

    Um. Hmm. “Insider’s game?”

    We local producers battled constantly to open the air waves. Wally Bowen was the dictator who decided what would air. If it was an “insider’s game,” Bowen was the insider.

  3. Wally Bowen

    Hey Cecil — You claim to be a journalist. Why not back up your slander with some evidence?

    The program and steering committees of WPVM have always kept minutes of their meetings, and we conduct most of our business via email.

    Many local producers followed the rules, submitted program demos, and were ignored, while program slots came open and were handed over to the well-connected (e.g. an existing host’s girlfriend ). This is not hearsay or speculation — I have the emails to back up this claim.

    The program committee based its decisions on consensus. I can think of three occasions in five years when I overruled the consensus, usually in favor of news programming over music, which is in keeping with the board’s goal of WPVM being primarily a news and information station.

    WPVM’s “block” music format (music shows in 2-3 hour blocks) was determined by the program committee, despite my misgivings that it tilted programming too much in favor of music over local news and info.

    Your claim that I “Was the dictator who decided what would air” is simply a lie. Either you are repeating hearsay, or you are lying.

    BTW, you have your share of WPVM airtime. Any time you want to have a fair and open debate about WPVM’s governance, I am available.

    Or you can stay in your comfort-zone of slander and hearsay.

    wally bowen

  4. Cecil Bothwell

    Perhaps “dictator” overstates the case. But my experience on committees and as a host over the years has been that you ran things. I’m not interested in engaging in a pissing contest here. But the programming committees you instituted (I forget if there were two or three over these years) had no power to override your veto. The station manager served at your discretion. You summarily instituted this summer’s awkward MAIN fundraiser as an onair effort. You precipitated the recent fracas by canceling a show at your discretion. Etc. and etc.

    The action taken by the board now is to remove you from management of or interference with the station. If the problems are as you have here stated them, I would suppose they will continue. If they are as I framed them, they will end. We now have an independent programming committee, and it will be what we make of it.

    As for the idea that blocks of music programming tilt the station too much in favor of music, well, it could be. But I think we can take a page from successful public stations across the country. Music shows are cheap in terms of money and time (time is the main thing for an all-volunteer station like WPVM). WCQS is the local gorilla, and they run more hours of music than WPVM. News is labor intensive. Also, in the matter of catching flies with honey, an awful lot of listeners LIKE music.

    So my show, “Blows Against the Empire” (Fridays, 9 to noon) is mostly music, but it is heavily progressive music: pro-labor, pro-peace, pro-community. And I do a lot of interviews with local activists (and occasional national activists). I would argue that I gain a bigger audience for the public affairs material I interlace between the tunes than if dedicated news shows filled that time slot. And, as a volunteer, I couldn’t possibly fill three hours each week with locally produced material. The music makes it possible to make that show happen.

    My hat is off to you for starting WPVM (as well as MAIN). You have done some wonderful work and our community is better for it.

  5. Wally Bowen

    Just for the record Cecil: I did not institute the Programming or the Steering Committees, as you state. The board instituted those committees via the Policy & Governance group that met from December, 2003 to March, 2004. That group was comprised of volunteers, board and staff.

    Also, it is the board’s policy — via its bylaws — that the executive director have final authority over the content on WPVM and the MAIN homepage, just like an executive editor or publisher or station manager has final authority at Mountain Xpress, the Citizen-Times or WNCW, respectively.

    Finally, the midsummer fund drive was mandated by the board, not by me as you claim. As executive director, it was my job to implement that fundraiser, as it was part of the budget reconciliation the board approved last April.

    As for WPVM’s focus on music, I raise this issue only to point out that, as executive director, I could have overruled the music “block” format, but instead deferred to the majority of volunteers who showed up at the meetings.

    The disconnect between the reality of how WPVM has operated and the names I have been called (“Big Brother,” “Tyrant,” Autocrat” and “Dictator”) is why I keep asking for you and others to produce the evidence behind the claims.

    wally bowen

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